Phillies-Pirates 5 Things: Vince Velasquez Tries to Rebound Vs. Weak Pirates Offense

Phillies (15-24) at Pirates (21-20)
4:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies got back into the win column Friday with a 7-2 victory in Pittsburgh over the Pirates. The victory ended a four-game losing streak and came on the heels of a 3-15 stretch. 

However, there is little light at the end of that losing tunnel. Jeremy Hellickson left his start early after tweaking his lower back and the Phillies now have to face Ivan Nova, who has taken the National League by storm since a deadline deal last season. To combat him, Vince Velasquez heads to the mound in pursuit of his second quality start of the season.

Here are five things to know for Saturday's game:

1. Insult from injury
A win is usually a cause for celebration, but Friday was hardly that kind of win. Sure, it ended an ugly skid for the team and gives them a chance to salvage what has been a disappointing road trip. But Hellickson's injury is worrisome.

Aaron Nola is on the cusp of returning to the team, giving them a complete rotation for the first time in a month. With a pitching staff hungry for quality starts or even something resembling one, that's a big step.

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And Hellickson's start last night was a big step as well. After going 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in April, the Phillies' de facto ace failed to get past the fifth inning in his first three May starts while giving up 12 runs over the course of the three games. Granted, the starts came against the Cubs and Nationals, but after allowing just one home run in his first five starts, he gave up seven in three games.

So giving up just two runs on two hits and a walk - no homers - to the Pirates was encouraging. Admittedly, they're not a great offensive team, particularly with Starling Marte suspended for PEDs. But it was still an important step.

So losing Hellickson, even for a start, would be a blow to the Phillies, who are 8-1 when he takes the mound this season. They have Nick Pivetta ready to go if he needed to go on the DL but would have to turn to elsewhere for a simple spot start. The team has just one day off between now and June 19, so a shake up to the rotation could have lasting effects.

2. No runs Nova
Nova spent the first 6 1/2 seasons of his career with the New York Yankees, experiencing plenty of ups and downs. He pitched to 16-4 record and won Game 1 of the ALDS as a rookie, but failed to live up to the expectations that came with his early success. A Tommy John surgery and a few more below average seasons later, Nova was trade bait for the Yankees, who sold at the 2016 trade deadline.

So the Pirates picked up the then-29-year-old starter as a reclamation project and it appears they've caught lightning in a bottle. In 19 starts since joining the Senior Circuit, Nova has a 2.80 ERA and an 85/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Pitching coach Ray Searage, who is known for taking veteran starters under his wing and bringing back former glory, seems to have done wonders with Nova, particularly his control. In his last full season in New York, Nova walked a career-high 3.2 batters per nine innings in his return from surgery. Now, he has an NL-best 0.7 walks per nine while also leading the league with an 8.25 K-BB ratio.

The Pirates re-signed Nova to a three-year, $26 million deal this offseason, which gives them a potential ace while they figure out their sputtering offense. He has two complete games, including a shutout, this season, and has been tremendously efficient as a consistent strike thrower. He relies on a low 90s sinker and fastball that can hit 95 while mixing in a curveball and changeup. 

He's faced the Phillies twice - one start in 2015 and 2016, respectively - with strong results. He's 1-0 with a 0.71 ERA, going at least six innings each time. Last season, he struck out 11 Phillies in just six innings, giving up two runs on five hits and a walk. Current Phillies bat just .217/.321/.326 off him with Daniel Nava (4 for 15 with two doubles and three walks) having the most experience. Michael Saunders is 3 for 9 with two doubles and a walk.

3. Velasquez with an opportunity
There have been two different kinds of starts for Velasquez this seasons: The ones where he's given up plenty of runs thanks to walks and homers and put the Phillies behind and the ones where he pitches well but doesn't last long due to a high pitch count. Sometimes a mix of the two.

But he has a chance to right the ship against the Buccos on Saturday. The Pirates came into this series with the second-worst offense in baseball in wins above replacement and the fourth-worst in OPS. They hit for a low average, don't get on base often and don't hit for much power. What a trifecta. They've struggled on the bases to make everything that much worse for a team without their opening day centerfielder for a few months.

Velasquez dominated opponents under .500 like the Pirates last season to the tune of a 2.81 ERA in 11 starts with 78 strikeouts in 67 1/3 innings. This will be one of the weakest offenses he faces all season and he needs to take advantage. The key will be avoiding free passes and long balls, both of which he's allowed at career-worst rates this season. Obviously, that's easier said that done. But a pitcher with stuff like him needs to trust it against a lineup unlikely to do much with what he gives them. 

4. Players to watch …
Phillies: Since he was benched to start the Nationals series, Maikel Franco has hits in six straight games. He had his first two-hit game since May 4 on Friday night. 

Pirates: Josh Bell packs a ton of power for a rookie as the Phillies learned Friday night. He lined an RBI double and now sports a .256/.342/.527 batting line in his first full big league season.

5. This and that
• Pirates 2B Gift Ngoepe made history last month by becoming the player born in Africa to reach the big leagues. The South African native lined a single off Chicago Cubs starter Jon Lester in his debut. He has a story worth telling and a glove that should keep him in the show.

• The Phillies haven't won the season series with the Pirates since 2011. Since then, they are 13-23 against the Buccos.

• Odubel Herrera has struggled this month, batting just .215/.239/.308. Last season, he put together a sterling .324/.393/.467 line in May en route to his first All-Star game.

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